NPR : Tell Me More

Coco Chanel: The Unlikely Fashion Icon

Play associated audio

Fashion designer Coco Chanel has been credited with developing the "modern woman." She once said, "I had rediscovered honesty, and in my own way, I made fashion honest." By loosening waistlines, shortening hemlines and embracing pants, Chanel redefined women's style. She was inspired by men's wear: shirts with clean collars, simple sweaters and loose belted jackets. She liberated women from constrictive clothing by making clothes that women could move in. Her designs were a symbol of the independent woman she was.

How she would become one of the most influential fashion icons of all time is the subject of Lisa Chaney's biography "Coco Chanel: An Intimate Portrait." The book was discussed on NPR's Tell Me More as a part of the program's biography series for Women's History Month.

Chanel was born into dire poverty and orphaned at age 11. "By the time I was 12, I realized that money is freedom," she said. She would eventually become the mistress of powerful men – one of the few options available to poor women in early 20th century France to escape poverty. What she never escaped though was the fear of her early life.

Chanel describes for Tell Me More host Michel Martin how very complex Chanel was: Her heart was broken when the love of her life died in a car accident; and she had romances with artist Salvador Dali, a Duke of Westminster, composer Igor Stravinsky and even a Nazi spy. That affair, during WWII, is still a point of criticism as some claim Chanel was an anti-Semite. She has also been criticized for her treatment of employees when she closed her salon during the war. "I think it was a terrible, terrible thing to do. But she was hard. She was hard but she wasn't only hard. And I try really hard in the book to paint a nuanced picture of a woman who was deeply complex and who could be very hard but wasn't only hard," said Chaney.

After the war, Chanel's comeback is credited to the United States. In 1954, the American edition of Vogue magazine lauded the redesigned Chanel suit. While many women will never have the financial means to afford couture Chanel, her influences are seen in today's shoulder bag, sling back shoes and the little black dress.

"She was a force of nature. She was very impressive in many, many ways," Chaney said. "And I think she gave women – all of the 20th and 21st century – I think she gave us an enormous amount. It really wasn't just the clothes. The clothes were a reflection of her life."

Excerpt: Coco Chanel: An Intimate Life

Prologue: You're Proud, You'll Suffer

Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

Copyright © Lisa Chaney, 2011

One night, just over a century ago, a couple made their way past the Tuileries, the oldest of Paris's gardens. They were to dine in Saint- Germain the neighborhood where the loftiest nobility still kept mansions in town.

The young woman was straight and slender. Her heavy black hair was caught up at the nape of a long neck, and an unusually simple hat set off her angular beauty. She looked younger than her twenty-six years. Her English lover's gaze was skeptical, amused, revealing the confidence of privilege. His manner was, intentionally, less polished and urbane than that of his French peers.

As they went on, Gabrielle (who was known to some as Coco) talked. Enjoying her newfound independence, acquired with the progress of her little business, she remarked on how easy it seemed to be to make money. She was unprepared for her lover's response.

He told her she was wrong. Not only was she not making any money, she was actually in debt to the bank.

She refused to believe him. If she wasn't making any money, why did the bank keep giving it to her?

Her lover, Arthur Capel, laughed. Hadn't she realized? The bank gave her money only because he'd put some there as a guarantee. But she challenged him again.

"Do you mean I haven't earned the money I spend? That money's mine."

"No, it isn't, it belongs to the bank!"

Gabrielle was shocked into silence. Keeping stride with her quickened pace, Arthur told her that, only yesterday, the bank had telephoned to say she was withdrawing too much.

While her talk of business had provoked Arthur to reveal the truth of her situation, he didn't much care and he told her it really wasn't important. This attempt to mollify her only renewed her defiance.

"The bank rang you? Why not me? So I'm dependent upon you?"

In despair, she now insisted they go back across the river, but this brought her no respite. Looking around their well- appointed apartment, she saw the objects she had purchased with what she had thought to be her profits and was faced with the illusion of her independence. Everything had really been bought by Arthur. Her despair turning to hatred, she hurled her bag at him, ran down the stairs and out into the street. Heedless of the rain, she fled, intent on seeking refuge several streets away in her shop on the rue Cambon.

"Coco, you're crazy!" Arthur called out.

By the time he reached her, though they were both soaked, his instruction to her to be reasonable was useless and she sobbed, inconsolable.

In his arms, she was at last calmed. "He was the only man I have loved," she would say in later years. "He was the great stroke of luck in my life . . . He had a very strong and unusual character . . . For me he was my father, my brother, my entire family." Yet only after much persuasion would she return to their apartment. In the early hours, when Arthur believed he had soothed the wound to her pride, at last, they both slept.

This experience transformed her purpose. A few hours later, arriving early at rue Cambon, she made a pronouncement to her head seamstress, Angèle: "From now on, I am not here to have fun; I am here to make a fortune. From now on, no one will spend one centime without asking my permission."

When Arthur shocked Gabrielle out of her fantasy and laughed at her self- delusion, even he, who understood her well, could not have predicted the ferocity of her response. He had done her a harsh favor, had compelled her to face reality. This was the catalyst that would release her most intense creative energies.

Coco Chanel would never forget Arthur's part in initiating her transformation. And if he had at first underestimated the degree to which her pride was the force that drove her, he was nonetheless the one who had said to her, "You're proud, you'll suffer."

In these words, he had singled out Gabrielle's most significant driving force and foreseen that it would be the source of her vulnerability. Yet while her pride was indeed to make her suffer, she believed it was the key to her success. "Pride is present in whatever I do," she would later say. "It is the secret of my strength . . . It is both my fl aw and my virtue."

Some time after the night that drove her to her new purpose, her business began to prosper, and she would emerge from her understudy role as a kept young woman with a hat shop. As her rebellious and progressive style gradually became synonymous with her controversial life, Coco Chanel would embody an influential and glamorous new form of female independence. Later, she would say, "But I liked work. I have sacrificed everything to it, even love. Work has consumed my life."

In the meantime, as her profits became substantial, she proudly told Arthur she no longer needed a guarantor and that he could withdraw all his securities. His reply was melancholy: "I thought I'd given you a plaything, I gave you freedom."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit


No Longer Omar: Actor Michael K. Williams On Lucky Breaks And Letting Go

Over the course of his career, Williams says he's learned to separate himself from his characters (like The Wire's Omar). In HBO's The Night Of, he plays a powerful prison inmate named Freddy.

#FoodPorn, Circa 1600s: Then And Now, It Was More About Status Than Appetite

A new study of old masters finds that capturing and showing off decadent and expensive meals is a decidedly old-fashioned practice. Like today's Instagrammers, it was all about projecting an image.

From Reluctant Political Spouse To Pop Culture Icon: Michelle Obama

In eight years, Michelle Obama has gone from obscurity to becoming one of the country's most popular Democrats. The first lady has earned high approval ratings and praise for her authenticity.

Verizon Buys Yahoo's Core Assets

Verizon is buying Yahoo's Internet business for $4.83 billion. It's not a carefully designed deal, but a quick sale of the troubled Internet pioneer to the highest bidder.

Leave a Comment

Help keep the conversation civil. Please refer to our Terms of Use and Code of Conduct before posting your comments.